The pursuit of permanence with Dr Helen Whincup

New light is being shed on the effects of poor housing, poverty & neglect that passes through generations of Scotland’s ‘looked after’ children

Thursday 27th June 2019

A principal investigator in one of the largest studies of its kind in Scotland, Dr Helen Whincup speaks to about Permanently Progressing – a study investigating the experiences of all the children in Scotland who were looked after in 2012-13 when they were aged five or under.

Dr Whincup says one of the “stand out” findings relates to the number of parents that had experienced neglect when they were young, and whose children were then mistreated in some way.

“Nearly half the children were under a year – and 250 of them were less than seven days old – when they became looked after, and you are far more likely to be on an adoption pathway if you become looked after when you are very little.

“What this flags up is how important sensitive, proactive intervention is pre-birth.

“When you read across to the outcome strand of our study, where social workers have told us about 443 of the cohort of children – is that for those on an adoption pathway, 62% of mothers had experienced neglect as a child.

“Not as much is known about the fathers…but where information was known, around 30% of birth fathers had also experienced neglect.

“The guidance on pre-birth assessment is really tiny but that period immediately before birth and just after is really important in terms of assessment.

“We really need to think about parents who themselves have experienced neglect in their childhood and how we can offer them sensitive and thoughtful support really, really early on.”

Phase one ran from October 2014 to December 2018, investigating decision making, permanence, progress, outcomes and belonging among 1,836 children by using national data as well as play and talk sessions with the children, and surveys and interviews with adults involved in their care.

Led by the University of Stirling, the study has been a collaboration with the universities of Lancaster and York, as well as the Adoption and Fostering Alliance Scotland, and is designed to be the first phase in a longitudinal study tracking children’s progress into adolescence and beyond.


Adoptive and foster parents and kinship carers were surveyed as part of the study on the levels of support they accessed, “and what was really interesting”, says Dr Whincup, “…was that the services accessed by children and caregivers in different setting really varied, so foster carers accessed much more formal support, for example through child and adolescent mental health services.”

“Children who resided with adoptive parents tended to get their support from informal sources such as family and friends.

“Kinship carers and the children in their care got far less support from either formal or informal services.

“That’s really interesting given the 2014 legislation which brought in kinship care orders, which essentially said in terms of permanence the first route should be remaining with parents but the second route should be with other family members – something supported by kinship care orders.”

Achieving permanence early on with increased levels of support often leads to better outcomes for the children involved, the report says. Adequate support is needed to realise the significant value of “everyday routines and rituals to help children feel as well as be secure.”

“What we found was that children who became looked after away from home earlier - who didn’t have lots of moves, who had experienced less maltreatment and had been in a placement for a long time, and who didn’t have a disability, were doing better than children who’d been looked after away from home when they were older and experienced more maltreatment or who had gone through lots of moves, or who had a disability.”

“In policy and practice there is a real drive towards kinship care but what the kinship carers told us was that then the children they were looking after received less support.

“We’ve said [in our report] that local authorities do need to think about what strategies they can put in place to make sure there are flexible and responsive services for all carers and adoptive parents as well as unrelated foster carers and children in their care.”


Some of the ways decision must be made – whether through lengthy forms or potentially adversarial children’s hearings – “can be difficult and because of that sometimes the focus can shift from the child to the dynamics between the individuals involved in deciding what should happen next,” explains Dr Whincup.

Through surveying 160 decision makers such as social workers, the study found the intellectual and emotional demands of decision-making that can affect a child and their family, led at times to processes and policies being key, rather than a child’s specific needs.

Mindful of this, Dr Whincup and her team sought to mirror the ethos of the Scottish Government’s child-centred approach.

One of the things that’s key about the policy in Scotland is it puts the child at the centre and that’s what we have tried to in this research - to keep the child at the centre the whole time because sometimes individuals can be easy to lose in administrative research that involves so many.”


A four-nation study of levels of child protection, intervention, poverty and inequality the University of Stirling was involved in in recent years found kids are more likely to become looked after if they live in poverty and poor housing.

This was also a finding of phase one of Permanently Progressing.

“One of the things that is important is focusing on individual solutions but to situate children’s experiences within their wider experiences of being more likely to be poor and socially excluded.

“You need to situate those child-specific needs within the context of families who were living in poverty and poor housing.”


Funding for phase two of the study is currently being sought by Dr Whincup and her colleagues who intend to revisit the same children in 2020, tracking their progress for another four years, examining various aspects of their routes to permanence.

“We would like to express our thanks to all of the children, parents and foster parents, kinship carers and practitioners who took part, and to the anonymous donor who funded part one of the study.

“It’s really exciting to have such a huge study take place in Scotland.”


The full reports from phase one can be accessed here.

Pictured: Dr Helen Whincup